By Amy E. Grambeau
Yoga for recovery. This phrase says so much in three small words. Let’s stop and take a moment to ponder what this may mean to someone with substance use disorder. When a person decides they are ready to live a life free from drugs or alcohol they are looking for guidance on their difficult journey. And, along comes yoga and mindfulness.
Although there is no single definition of yoga, a simple description goes something like this: Yoga is union, an awakening that allows us to be more aware of ourselves and to feel connected to ourselves and life.
So, when the two are combined – there’s magic.
For more than twenty years medical and science professionals have studied yoga, meditation and the mindfulness connection. And recent studies have demonstrated that when yoga is a critical part of a person’s comprehensive approach to treating substance use disorder, it reduces stress and anxiety, helping fight cravings and relapse.
Consider research on mindfulness with the late Dr. Alan Marlatt, who coined the term urge surfing (to cope with cravings for addictive substances or behaviors and allow them to pass) and developed the widely-used Mindfulness Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP) protocol for addictive behaviors. They found that college smokers who practiced mindfulness techniques had a 26 percent reduction in their smoking, more than twice that of a control group. And in a recent study of young adults at an inpatient drug treatment program, researchers Jordan Davis and Nicholas Barr of USC School of Social Work state “…our initial studies show dramatic drops in stress, cravings, impulsivity and risk of relapse after practicing mindfulness.” Davis, however, noted that mindfulness should complement — not replace — proven techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy.
Jill Fuleky from Ann Arbor knows first-hand how yoga can change your life. She has successfully recovered from years of drug use, excessive drinking and suicidal tendencies. She is now living a stable, fulfilling life that includes yoga, every day. “This is what it looked like,” describes Jill. “I had been through many traumas in my life. Someone introduces you to a quick fix to take the pain away, and then it becomes habit. Pure and simple.” Jill was a serious youth athlete but began using drugs and alcohol at the age of 13. She attended Pioneer High School where she explained that you could get any kind of drug, any time of day. She then became a statistic, dropping out of High School and struggling to stay alive. Her healing practice of yoga has changed all of that. Jill began a serious Ashtanga Yoga practice over five years ago and has become an authorized Level 2 Ashtanga Teacher, which takes years to complete.
She knows that trauma is commonly the root problem of substance use disorders and addictive behaviors and that is why a daily yoga practice helped her to “feel the trauma… work through it, transforming it into awareness instead of an existence. I am now able to think clearly and connect with my breath, finding real peace and space,” she explains.
At a recent forum on substance abuse disorder (SUD) and recovery hosted by Washtenaw Families Against Narcotics (FAN), Dr. Sarah Bur of the Packard Health Center mentioned that, “…when a person has decided to adopt a different lifestyle it takes time for the brain to heal, sometimes taking up to two years of hard work and therapies. The name of the game is reduction of relapse.” Rehab can’t be done alone in your apartment… you need to re-enter the community… in a safe way.”
At the same Washtenaw FAN meeting, Dr. Christopher Blazes, M.D. Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Emergency Medicine, Addiction Psychiatrist, U-M Addiction Treatment Services, Emergency Medicine Physician at U-M Hospital added, “The brain is an organ and it needs a chance to recover… we need to use these resources to develop different neuropathways.”
Dr. Blazes also explains that, “Yoga represents an ancient philosophy of self-exploration which has a multitude of benefits. It helps integrate the various ego processes— physical, psychological and spiritual. One can consider it the original bio-psycho-social practice, but it goes even further to fine tune the spiritual side of our bodies. As our understanding of recovery expands, we are discovering that things like community, and exercise and finding ways to experience joy without drugs are important to long-term recovery. Yoga is a good piece of that puzzle for many.”
Taylor Hunt, also an Ashtanga Teacher who started the Trini Foundation tells us about his journey.
“… I struggled with alcoholism and drug addiction for a decade. In the midst of my addiction, I lacked any true human connection and lived in complete isolation as I stood at the brink of death every single day. Once I began practicing Ashtanga yoga, things changed for me. I released the self-hate that had plagued me for years and gained a new sense of acceptance and self-worth. I felt more compassion for myself and for others. I quickly understood that yoga offered me a pathway toward physical, emotional, and spiritual healing. I never looked back. As I learned more about yoga, I discovered that the principles of recovery and the principles of Ashtanga yoga are highly complementary to each other. Combined, they provide an effective tool for self-transformation.”
Washtenaw Families Against Narcotics (Washtenaw FAN) offers free local yoga classes at the Ypsilanti Studio from 7:30pm – 8:30pm, 208 W. Michigan Ave., for people in recovery and the families and friends of people in recovery. Registration on-line is required at: www.eventbrite.com/e/yoga-for-recovery-tickets-64983580639, or by going to their website at WashtenawFAN.com. “Coming into a room where you can be safe and you can connect to others who are going through the same thing, we can learn from each other, to grow and to make ourselves better. And, it makes our community better because of it,” says Marie Barnard, a Yoga for Recovery Instructor. For more information watch the Yoga for Recovery video at: https://youtu.be/gSdlU-VbFX8.